Africa's new introspection

An acknowledgment of responsibility for coups and terrorism by some of the continent’s leaders may mark a shift.

Internally displaced people wait for aid in Djibo, Burkina Faso, May 26.

In late May the world reached a grim milestone. For the first time on record, according to the United Nations, the number of people forced to flee their homes because of violence and conflict surpassed 100 million. “It’s a record that should never have been set,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

It is also an important catalyst behind a hopeful turn in diplomacy and governance in Africa, which has the world’s highest concentration of displaced people. On May 28, in a special summit on the spread of terrorism and a resurgence of military coups on the continent, African leaders took responsibility.

“We must look at internal reasons that lead to instability and make our people vulnerable to exploitative ideologies,” Angolan President João Lourenço told his peers. “We must find political and economic solutions because terrorism is compounding the issues of hunger, poverty, and displaced persons. There’s need for firmness not only in condemning but in taking actions against those who take power through unconstitutional means.”

African Union Chairperson H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat was more blunt. Government takeovers and terrorism are flourishing, he said, “because we do not honor our own commitments” to democracy, human rights, collective security, and economic development.

Those acknowledgments matter for several reasons. They reflect a growing alignment of political norms and public aspirations for democracy and good governance in Africa. (Angola jumped 10 places on Transparency International’s most recent annual corruption survey by prosecuting dishonest public officials.) At a time when the world’s attention is increasingly focused elsewhere, they are also a recognition that healing broken societies starts from within.

For the first time, an annual survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council published on June 1 found that the 10 most neglected crises of conflict-driven human displacement were in Africa. One reason for that neglect is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although Africa accounts for 60% of the world’s displaced people – including 72,000 more just last week in Congo, according to the U.N. – the Norwegian study found a striking shift in the world’s attention away from humanitarian emergencies in places like Ethiopia and South Sudan.

The study makes an urgent plea for more international attention on Africa’s crises. But attempts to address crises of displacement from the outside have had limited success. Colombia, for example, is offering special temporary residence visas to an estimated 1.7 million Venezuelans fleeing the crisis in their own country. The World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and United States government have provided $800 million to help that effort. That initiative, however, will reach fewer than a third who left Venezuela since 2014.

The recognition by African leaders that they bear responsibility for addressing the causes of mass displacement – including poor governance, civil wars, and military coups – may lead to a shift in how they address the spread of violent Islamist extremism. They can take a cue from local leaders in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso who are promoting reconciliation with jihadis through dialogue.

“Our conversations with them became deeper [and] they were more helpful and forgiving,” one community leader in northern Mali told The New Humanitarian of talks between farmers and the Islamists threatening to displace them from their homes and land. Africa has seen a 70% increase in violent attacks by Islamist militants in the past year, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Affairs. In Burkina Faso, 1.3 million people have been displaced. The problem has spread despite national and international military cooperation. But the humanitarian crisis may be prompting Africa to adopt a different strategy – one based on democracy building and social reconciliation.

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